It's unanimous: Ohtani, Acuna win MVP awards

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Shohei Ohtani and Ronald Acuna Jr. were each named the Most Valuable Player of their respective leagues in unanimous fashion Thursday, an unprecedented occurrence in the 92-year history of the award.

Ohtani, a captivating free agent coming off another historic two-way season, also became the first player to win the award unanimously on two occasions, having done so in 2021. Corey Seager and Marcus Semien, the Texas Rangers’ star middle infielders, finished second and third, respectively, in the American League.

Ohtani received all 30 first-place votes from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America even though he did not pitch for most of the last two months of the Los Angeles Angels’ season.

He celebrated by high-fiving a puppy that sat on his lap throughout the proceedings.

“Obviously I wanted to win it last year, but [Aaron] Judge had a spectacular season and, deservedly so, he won it,” Ohtani, speaking through an interpreter, told MLB Network shortly after Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson announced him as the AL MVP. “So I wanted to come back stronger and try to win it this year, and I know my rivals, Semien, Seager, they had great seasons, and congrats to them for winning the World Series. I think it’s awesome. My goal was to try to come out on top, and this kind of pays off all my hard work.”

Acuna, the Atlanta Braves’ dynamic right fielder, claimed his first MVP in the National League, beating out Mookie Betts of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who came in second on all 30 ballots.

A force at the leadoff spot for a fearsome Braves lineup, Acuna combined 41 home runs with an NL-leading 73 stolen bases, easily becoming the first member of the 40-70 club. The 25-year-old also led the NL in on-base percentage (.416), OPS (1.012), hits (217) and runs scored (149). His .337 batting average trailed only Miami Marlins second baseman Luis Arraez’s .354 for the major league lead.

Ohtani, 29, led the major leagues with 9.0 FanGraphs wins above replacement (2.4 as a pitcher, 6.6 as an offensive player). He slashed .304/.412/.654 in 599 plate appearances as a hitter, leading the AL in home runs (44) and the majors in OPS (1.066) while adding 20 stolen bases. In 23 pitching starts, Ohtani went 10-5 with a 3.14 ERA, striking out 167 batters and issuing 55 walks in 132 innings.

Acuna did not attend his scheduled conference call with BBWAA members because he debuted for the Tiburones de La Guaira of the Venezuelan winter league shortly after claiming the award. The game was pushed back an hour to accommodate the announcement.

Ohtani, who hasn’t spoken to the media since Aug. 9, also did not attend, adding to the mystery of his ongoing, widely speculated free agency.

He arrived in the United States with great fanfare surrounding his two-way prowess in the winter of 2017, choosing the Angels after receiving interest from virtually every team. But his first three years were hampered by Tommy John surgery, a knee procedure and a COVID-19-shortened season, limiting him to mostly serving as a designated hitter.

Beginning in 2021, though, Ohtani simultaneously performed at an elite level as a pitcher and a hitter, becoming the first to do so since Babe Ruth’s brief attempt at a dual role about a century ago.

Ohtani won the AL MVP unanimously in 2021, then finished as runner-up in the wake of Judge’s AL-record-breaking home run season in 2022 before capturing the honor again in 2023. All told, Ohtani batted .277/.379/.585 with 124 home runs, 290 RBIs and 57 stolen bases from 2021 to 2023, but he also won 34 games, posted a 2.84 ERA and struck out 542 batters in 428⅓ innings as a pitcher.

Ohtani learned that he had retorn his ulnar collateral ligament on Aug. 23, but he continued to hit for nearly two additional weeks until an oblique strain ultimately forced him to shut it down. On Sept. 19, Ohtani underwent what is considered a hybrid version of another Tommy John surgery.

In a statement, Dr. Neal ElAttrache, the orthopedic surgeon who performed the procedure, wrote that Ohtani will be ready to hit at the start of the 2024 season and resume a two-way role by 2025.

Questions once again surround Ohtani’s pursuit of that role, but executives throughout the industry still expect him to garner a free agent contract that reaches $500 million — uncharted territory for a North American professional athlete.

“As far as the rehab — it’s going really great so far, going really well,” Ohtani said in response to one of two questions he took from MLB Network. “It feels a lot better and faster than the first time I had this surgery. But at the same time, I can’t rush. I have to take everything slow and take all the right steps. My plan is to come back strong next year.”

Acuna won the NL Rookie of the Year Award during his age-20 season in 2018 — Ohtani won the AL version that year — and finished fifth in NL MVP voting during his age-21 season in 2019, clearly establishing himself as one of the most dynamic forces in the sport. But he suffered a torn ACL in the middle of the 2021 season, forcing him to merely watch from the dugout while his Braves teammates won a championship later that fall. The following year, he was admittedly not himself. The explosiveness that helped elevate him to stardom was lacking. His timing in the batter’s box was off.

Acuna spent the ensuing offseason working diligently on his conditioning and trained with Fernando Tatis Sr., father of his good friend Fernando Tatis Jr., on slightly lowering his hands to lessen some of the moving parts in his swing and get his bat through the zone more quickly. Through six months of baseball’s regular season, Acuna’s OPS never fell below .900.

Acuna’s stolen base total was aided by new rules that introduced a pitch clock, increased the size of bases and limited the number of pitcher disengagements, but he hit 13 more home runs than the next-closest player to 70 stolen bases and stole 27 more bases than the next-closest player to 40 home runs.

I don’t know what to say — just super excited, happy,” Acuna, surrounded by family and friends in his home country of Venezuela, told MLB Network in Spanish. “Hopefully, by the grace of God, I can have an even better year next year than the one I just had.”

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